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FORTify Your Travels: Great Forts of the World

In case you’re wondering why you should visit forts in many major cities

in the US and around the world, if it weren’t for a Fort, Fort McHenry in Baltimore, we’d be humming “The Star Spangled Banner.” For it was the defense of the fort that inspired its martial lyrics.


During my recent trip to Angra do Heroismo in the Azores Islands that I realized that God may watch over the world, but forts watch over cities.  In addition, forts, guarding harbors or towns from built high atop hills, are the best place to get a total view of the city which spreads out below.  One of my favorite examples of such a fort is Fort Belvedere, which towers over Florence’s beautiful Boboli Gardens.  Forts atop hills are also great places to exercise while on vacation – aka an “uphill battle’ to visit a fort. (And for those who aren’t that crazy about exercise – think ahead to the climb down.)


Hilltops are the ideal location of forts for defense, keeping a city free of foreign enemy attack, by enabling defenders to sight an enemy far away on the horizon — as was the case of the Angra fort to protect the Portuguese islands from Spanish attack.  I concede that if a city is located on flat land, it’s very expensive and labor intensive to deliberately build a hill or move a hill just to crown a city.  Therefore, many forts in hill-less locations were constructed by building directly on the harbor, so the first building you see approaching the city is its fort.  And yes, Manhattan has such a fort, Fort Clinton, aka “Clinton Castle” (1811) guarding the harbor where I live – Manhattan.


Other forts such as the Fort of Good Hope – built by the Dutch in Cape Town South Africa in the mid-17th century – which has a fantastic museum — were also built at sea level.  Since humans are not like ants and can’t built hills. 

Before we visit more forts, let’s look at the definition of a “fort” according to Merriam-Webster:

A fort is a strong or fortified place especially  : a fortified place occupied only by troops and surrounded with such works as a ditch, rampart, and parapet : FORTIFICATION.”


According to that definition if there are troops on one side of a wall and a ditch on the other – that definition of troops on one side of wall and a ditch on the other would make the Great Wall of China a fort.  Great it is as a wall, but not so much as a fort.  That definition would make Texas’ Alamo a fort instead of merely another Spanish mission in the Southwest defended by troops.  And Rome’s magnificent Castle St. Angelo even displays weapons, canons and cannonballs and has ramparts and watch towers leading from the castle all the way to the Vatican for the Pope to escape during an attack.  However, the Castel St. Angelo (which started as Hadrian’s Tomb) is really just a fortified palace.  


In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many forts were built in the Northwest Territories (today’s western Canada and US) that are still called “forts.”  However, they were merely trading posts built for trading furs with the natives for profit – not built for the sole purpose of grabbing land. The Vancouver Fort on the Columbia River (in Vancouver, Washington) was more like a village surrounded by a wall – and was not defensive.    It was when land was grabbed from natives or another country that forts became defensive, such as one of my favorites — the spectacular Krak des Chevaliers — built by the Crusaders in present-day, Syria, looking more like a Gothic bastion that just arrived from France.


As for grabbing land, ever since Europeans landed in North America that’s exactly what they did from the Native Americans (formerly known as “Indians”).   Generations of Americans grew up watching Westerns on TV seeing Native Americans as the aggressors attacking forts.  Very few of those forts survive since their defensive walls were built of perishable wood.  However, many of the fort’s interior buildings in the West remain as they do at Fort Dodge, in Dodge City, Kansas.  


Besides visiting forts built by Americans for use by Americans let’s visit forts that were built in the US by foreign powers to keep out Americans some were built by British to keep out the French and some were even built by the Spanish to keep out the French and the British (who already pushed out Native Americans).   Spanish forts on American territory include Fort San Juan in Puerto Rico and Fort San Carlos in my favorite city in Florida, St. Augustine, the first European settlement in America.


My favorite fort owned by the French, then the British and then the Americans is Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, built by the French in the mid-18th century to keep out the British and lost to the British in the 1763 peace treaty ending the French Indian Wars, in which Indian tribes fought on both sides.  (I guess it didn’t matter who initially grabbed their land.)  The British lost Fort Ticonderoga to the Americans after the Battle of Saratoga led by General Benedict Arnold (before he turned) and the Green Mountain boys led by Ethan Allan (before he turned to making colonial-style furniture in the 20th century).  


To see stars in America you visit Hollywood where you see stars on the sidewalk – the Walk of Fame.  In upstate New York’s Fort Ticonderoga towering over Lake Champlain, you’re introduced to a French trendsetter – forts built in the shape of a “star.”  The extensions of the points of the star have double exposure (on both sides of the star) to better to ward off attacks. While the French lost Fort Ticonderoga, its style — a fort constructed in the shape of a “star” was a French trendsetter.


The star of the ubiquitous star-shaped fort was Vauban – the 17th-century French engineer whose heart belongs to Paris.  Vauban’s heart is encased just steps away from Napoleon’s Tomb in Paris’s magnificent Les Invalides. Even forts built earlier were later surrounded by star-shaped outer walls such as the seldom-visited but spectacular walled city of Palmanova not far from Venice.  Palmanova was a late 16th-century planned city modeled after Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” drawing of a man in the center of a circle.  


And if you really like star-shaped forts – it’s back to Portugal to defend itself once again from Spain.  Not to the Azores this time – but to the mainland to the town of Elvas and The Fort Nossa Senhora da Graca which has a “Three Star Rating” since it has literally three star-shaped ramparts, one on top of the other, on top of another.  The original “layered look.” 


Back to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, also in shape of a star which inspired the star — “The Star Spangled Banner.”  Fort McHenry was named in honor of James McHenry, a surgeon who was a delegate to the Continental Congress and secretary of war under both Presidents George Washington and John Adams.  (A surgeon, who heals as Secretary of War. I guess he wanted to stir up business.)  However, no one ever named a fort after McHenry’s contemporary, a real healer, Edward Jenner, who discovered a vaccine for Smallpox.  Despite the martial lyrics to our national anthem, Fort McHenry has always been a symbol of freedom.  


Let’s go to Russia to visit a Fort created as a “land grab” by one of Russia’s most famous leaders.  No, not a Russian fort near Ukraine, but The Fort of Saints Peter and Paul in the magnificent Russian city St. Petersburg – the beautiful canal-laden city – also built by Italian architects (which makes me call Venice “The St Petersburg of the South.”)   Russia’s great new European capital was founded by Peter the Great on land grabbed from Sweden after wars initiated by Peter the Great so he could create a capital city closer to Europe. 


St. Petersburg’s fort – the Fort of Saints Peter and Paul — represents a Russian dichotomy.  The fort has St. Petersburg’s most magnificent church, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, with its tall, extremely elongated, slim gold-plated steeple, which has dominated the St. Petersburg skyline almost since the fort’s founding in 1703.  However, at the same time the fortress named after Christian saints was also built to serve as prison — at first imprisoning enemies of the Romanovs and then the Romanovs themselves.  


I presume the Romanovs liked the fort and its church so much that Peter the Great – and the tsars after him — never wanted to leave.  They chose the church as their final resting place.  Latecomers to the church arrived in 1998 when the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family and servants– brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918 — finally were moved into a special chapel in 1998.  (Unlike the wandering Jews in the Bible’s “Exodus” – the last Romanovs wandered for 80 years — double the 40.)


While American ingenuity never built a hill to host a fort, as early as the War of 1812, it built an artificial island to hold a fort to protect a harbor.  Sadly that fort, like St. Petersburg’s Fort of Saints Peter and Paul, played a nefarious part in the history of our country.  That fort in Charleston, South Carolina’s harbor, Fort Sumter, was built to defend it from British attacks during the War of 1812.  Instead, almost 50 years later, that fort, Fort Sumter, saw the start of America’s deadliest war – the Civil War.  


If you love forts as much as I do, there’s one country you must visit – India. Millions of tourists from around the world hope to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra someday.  Unfortunately, they too frequently visit it as a day trip from New Delhi.  Visiting Agra without seeing the great Agra Fort to me is Agra-vating.  It’s worth spending at least one night to visit the Agra Fort as well as other great sites like the “Mini Taj Mahal,” the white marble Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, just across the river from the Taj.


Our journey is nearly complete going from Angra in the Azores to Agra, India.  The Agra Fort redefines “spectacular.”  Like many Mughal (Islamic India) buildings it’s constructed of red sandstone which glows at sunset and is a century older than the Taj Mahal.  In fact, one of the best views of the Taj Mahal is seen from the fort’s ramparts glowing white in the distance like a fairytale kingdom – reminding me of what the City of Oz should look like. 


The Agra Fort has a double set of ramparts, which goes beyond protecting its inhabitants as is the function of most forts.  Its double ramparts (over 70 ft high) protect an exquisite Mughal palace complex complete with a Hall of Justice.  Almost all the pillars in its lavish buildings have capitals (the top of the pillar, which touches the ceiling), which in Europe would quality as exotic sculpture in its own right.  The walls have red sandstone carved in pattens that imitate curtains.   One of the Agra Fort’s Gates is guarded by statues of two life-size elephants.  


And if you like elephants, forget a safari where you can merely see elephants.  Visit yet another Indian fort, The Amber Fort, in which you ride up to the fort’s main gates on an elephant! It’s yet another Indian Fort that’s filled with lavish carvings from floor to ceiling – and including ceilings.   And this brings us back to where we started – forts on a hill giving way to sweeping views of the city below including what could pass as a “French Formal Garden.”   The only thing this fort, high on a hill, is missing is “A Lonely Goatherd.” 


Even if I have to say so myself, this was an excellent column introducing you to my favorite forts I’ve visited across the world.   Where did this self-praise come from?  My visit to Fort Bragg.  Although I hope to someday to visit Fort Knox!

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